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Peter Hynes: The data doesn’t lie: why genotyping and EBI are key to dairy profitability

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Winter feeding on Peter Hynes' dairy farm in Aherla, Co Cork. "Looking at how the changes in EBI affected our herd, I can’t see any negatives," says Peter. PHOTO: Claire Keogh

Winter feeding on Peter Hynes' dairy farm in Aherla, Co Cork. "Looking at how the changes in EBI affected our herd, I can’t see any negatives," says Peter. PHOTO: Claire Keogh

Winter feeding on Peter Hynes' dairy farm in Aherla, Co Cork. "Looking at how the changes in EBI affected our herd, I can’t see any negatives," says Peter. PHOTO: Claire Keogh

The cows are finally all dried of and a well earned break is now on the agenda. As much as the cows will gain some body condition, I have no doubt I will do the same over the festive season. After a hectic year, I have every intention of enjoying this Christmas. It will be a different one to what most of are used to, but staying positive is key.

The quiet time on the farm has allowed me time to look at data on the genetic gain of our herd as I prepare my presentation and paper for the British Cattle Breeders conference in January.

If you mention high EBI (Economic Breeding Index) on social media you almost need to dive for cover, yet the reality is the research has proven time and time again that high EBI herds deliver in terms of overall performance. This is reflected at any dairy sale as high EBI stock sell exceptionally well at the marts.

Index

Tension seems to rise when major changes are implemented within EBI leading a reduction in bull figures and herd figures. But surely it has to be a positive for the national dairy herd to see major changes implemented within the index.

It shows that our researchers and analysts are working hard on compiling new data in a never-ending quest to ensure the most up-to-date data is available to dairy farmers.

The ICBF/Teagasc GreenBreed programme has weighed 100,000 cows as part of the scheme’s research on the ideal live weight for a dairy cow. I believe the more often we see major changes implemented the better, and Teagasc and the ICBF deserve a well-earned pat on the back after 20 years of EBI which has given farmers a second to none data base.

Looking at how the changes in EBI affected our herd, I can’t see any negatives.

Our average herd EBI has dropped from 135 down to 133, yet it only stood at 112 in September last year. The averages for our 2nd, 3rd & 4th lactation cows has gained with the accumulation of more data, but also gives us the confidence in our breeding program along with the use of genotyping.

Yes, it has impacted individual animals; we had a 399 EBI bull which dropped to 316 on the last two proof runs, yet he is still higher than his sire and I firmly believe he now carries a more accurate proof figure. Honestly, I don’t feel he was a 400 EBI animal.

The other side of the equation is Rathard Alanna who was born with an EBI of 279 in 2019 which climbed to 292 after genotyping, a figure she still holds after nine proof runs over 18 months.

She won the Munster EBI championship as a calf along with the overall genetic merit award at the National Dairy Show in 2019 and is due to calve in early February.

Looking at her breeding, her grand-dam along with four other cow family members hold five of the top seven places on EBI in our herd. This is a testament to how high genetic merit animals can hold their place within a herd.

Looking at the bigger picture, all this EBI research has allowed the national herd make huge gains in fertility along with gestation length.

Ultimately, the question is what do we as farmers want? If it’s a trouble free cow that goes back in calf quickly, holds condition and pumps out kgs milk solids on a low input grass based system, that equates to a high EBI herd.

Genotyping

I also find myself questioning why all dairy farmers are not embracing the use of genotyping as it allows for better informed breeding decisions.

We all have to manage our own herds. There is no point using a bull because the neighbor uses him; you need to select sires that suit your own herd requirements.

That’s why we are putting increasing time into matching individual bulls to heifers for maximum genetic gain.

Given that so many bull calves are exported every year, there is a strong argument that many dairy cows should merely be bred to beef sires in favour of the higher genetic merit cows being bred to high EBI bulls allowing for maximum genetic gain of the overall national herd.

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The increase in research and data being compiled would increase efficiencies in dairy herds. Meanwhile, we on-farm decision-makers need to draw on the lessons 20 years of progress to help us make better informed decisions about our herds.

Peter Hynes farms in Aherla, Co Cork with his wife Paula


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